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Congress rejects much of Betsy DeVos’s agenda in spending bill

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been steeped in controversy since she was first nominated for the role in the Trump administration. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Correction/clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how much Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sought to cut the department’s budget and misstated the reason she aimed to reduce the Office for Civil Rights’s budget. This story has been updated. 

Congress dealt a blow to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s school choice agenda in a tentative spending bill released late Wednesday, rejecting her attempt to spend more than $1 billion promoting choice-friendly policies and private school vouchers.

The House on Thursday approved the $1.3 trillion federal spending package, which includes a $3.9 billion boost for the Education Department. It heads to the Senate for a vote.

DeVos had sought to cut Education Department funding by $9 billion — about 13 percent. She wanted to eliminate money for after-school programs for needy youth and ax a grant program that helps low-income students go to college in favor of spending more than $1 billion to promote charter schools, magnet schools and private school vouchers. Her proposal also outlined cuts to the Office for Civil Rights.

DeVos seeks cuts from Education Department to support school choice

Her budget would have eliminated grant programs that supported student mental-health services. She proposed similar cuts for the next fiscal year — moves that received scrutiny in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. DeVos said her budget reflected her policy priorities and her attempts to roll back the role the federal government plays in schools.

“It sharpens and hones the purpose of our mission: serving students by meeting their needs,” DeVos said Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee, speaking about the budget proposal for next fiscal year. “President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget.”

Negotiators in Congress on March 21 reached an agreement on a $1.3 trillion spending bill, keeping government agencies operating through September. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Win McNamee/The Washington Post)

Instead, Congress is on track to increase department funding, with no money for the school choice program DeVos envisioned. But the secretary succeeded in increasing funding for charter schools by $58 million to $400 million, though she had hoped Congress would allocate $500 million for the grant program. 

DeVos’s spokeswoman said the secretary was disappointed Congress rejected her efforts to expand school choice.

“Too many students are stuck in a school that isn’t meeting their needs, through no fault of their own,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said. “We must end the system that forces students into schools based on their Zip code or family income.”

The spending bill, which must be passed by Friday to avoid another government shutdown, boosts investments in student mental health, increasing funding by $700 million for a wide-ranging grant program that schools can use for violence prevention, counseling and crisis management. The bill calls for an additional $22 million for a program to reduce school violence and $25 million for a Department of Health and Human Services program that supports mental-health services in schools.

“There is no question that improving mental health is a critical priority, and Secretary DeVos is pleased Congress will provide additional funds to help students,” Hill said.

The spending bill provides $40 million for the popular D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant, which gives city students — who don’t have access to a robust in-state university system — affordable college options. The White House had proposed cutting one-fourth of the budget in fiscal 2018 and all federal funding for fiscal 2019.

Congressional negotiators reach deal on $1.3 trillion spending bill ahead of Friday government shutdown deadline

It also increases funding for the Office for Civil Rights and for after-school programs.

It was the second year in a row Congress rejected her proposals. The bill includes additional investments in early childhood education, including $610 million in new funding for Head Start.

“After more than a year on the job, I would have hoped Secretary DeVos would have learned by now that her extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education do not have support among parents or in Congress, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “I’m proud to have worked with Republicans in Congress to flatly reject these ideas, and increase funding for programs Secretary DeVos tried to cut, including K-12 education, civil rights protections, college affordability, and more.”

A number of higher education programs received a boost from appropriators, in a repudiation of the Trump administration’s plans to reduce the federal role.

Congress rejected DeVos’s proposal to freeze the maximum Pell Grant award to low-income students at $5,920, a ceiling that would have remained in place for the foreseeable future without any directive to adjust the award to inflation. Instead, lawmakers raised the maximum by $175, to $6,095, to help an estimated 8 million low-income college students who rely on the program to pay for school.

Betsy DeVos’s stumbling ‘60 Minutes’ interview, annotated

Rather than eliminate the $732 million Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant as DeVos proposed, congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to pour an additional $107 million into the program. Seventy-one percent of the 1.6 million recipients of the grant hail from households earning less than $30,000 a year.

The Trump administration also wanted to halve funding for federal work-study programs that help more than 300,000 students work their way through college. Congress decided to increase its allocation by $140 million, for a total of $1.1 billion.

Lawmakers have also created a $350 million discretionary relief fund to support Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which wipes away federal student debt for people who take jobs in the public sector after they have made 10 years worth of payments. The spending bill also expands the program to borrowers who were enrolled in an ineligible repayment plan but otherwise working in the public sector.

It includes a combined increase of $106 million for programs supporting historically black colleges and universities as well as other institutions serving minorities. The bill also sets aside $1.01 billion, a $60 million increase, for programs that help disadvantaged students enter and complete college. And it pumps an additional $35 million into the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program that assists low-income college students with child-care costs.